23. Trouble in Mind: Chemicals and the Brain

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Source: RACHEL’S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY, Date: June 20, 1996; July 4, 1996, Title: “Chemicals and the Brain, Parts I and II,” Author: Peter Montague

SSU Censored Researchers: Jeffrey Fillmore, Anne Shea

Scientists are discovering that chemicals in our environment are impacting our hormones and permanently changing how we live and who we are. Everyone is exposed throughout their lives to large numbers of man-made chemicals.

In a statement issued by a group of international scientists and physicians who attended a workshop in Erice, Italy, great concern was expressed regarding the effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals on the brain and the central nervous system.

Hormones are chemical messengers that travel in the bloodstream, turning on and off critical bodily functions to maintain health and well-being. Hormones control growth, development, and behavior in birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, including humans. Disruption of these hormones in the wombs of humans or in the eggs of wildlife may reduce intellectual capacity and social adaptability. This loss has the ability to change the character of human societies or destabilize wildlife populations.

Industrial hormone-disrupting chemicals are found in native populations from the Arctic to the tropics; and, because of their persistence in the body, can be passed from generation to generation. These synthetic chemicals are found in pesticides, plastics, shampoos, detergents, cosmetics, and other products we use in our everyday lives.

Thyroid hormones are essential for normal brain functions throughout life. Interference with thyroid hormone function during development leads to abnormalities in brain and behavioral development. Similarly, exposure to man-made chemicals during early development can result in malformations.

Because certain PCBs and dioxins are known to impair normal thyroid function, it is suspected that they contribute to learning disabilities, including hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, and perhaps other neurological abnormalities.

According to Dr. Theo Colborn, one of the participants at the workshop, and author of a book on the subject, most research funds used for testing new chemicals concentrate on cancer and ignore other risks, like hormone disruption.

“This preoccupation with cancer,” she points out in her book entitled Our Stolen Future (Colborn, Dr. Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Dutton, 1996), “has blinded us to evidence signaling other dangers. It has thwarted investigation of other risks that may prove equally important, not only to the health of individuals, but also to the well-being of society.”

The statement ended by suggesting that a concerted effort should be undertaken to deliver this message to the public, key decision makers, and the media.

COMMENTS: Peter Montague, author of “Chemicals and the Brain, Parts I and II,” and editor of Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, says, “As I noted in my articles, so far as I can tell, only the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee covered any part of this story. Every other media outlet seems to have ignored it.

“For the past five years, the public has been given bits of information about industrial chemicals mimicking (or otherwise obstructing) the hormone system in wildlife and humans,” says Montague. “Much coverage has been devoted to the hypothesis that human sperm counts have been dropping for 50 years, presumably because male children developing in the womb are exposed to hormone-disrupting chemicals (pesticides, and so forth).

“The point of my story was that these same chemicals may be interfering with the intellectual development of children as well. I believe parents would be more concerned to learn that the IQs of their children were being diminished by chemicals than they would to learn that their sons’ sperm counts might eventually be found deficient.

“It seems clear to me that the chemical manufacturers (and, in some cases, major chemical users) benefit by having this story suppressed or ignored. The chemical manufacturers alone earn $170 billion per year,” says Montague.

“This story will continue to develop next year. The substance for my articles was a statement issued by a group of scientists, stating their conclusion that common industrial and household chemicals may damage the brain by disrupting the hormone system. In early 1997, this same group of scientists will publish a series of peer-reviewed papers supporting what they summarized in their initial statement. At that point, it will become clear that there is considerable evidence underlying their conclusions.

“This subject raises a most fundamental issue about the way our society treats chemicals. Presently the burden of proof for the safety of chemicals lies with the general public. Chemical companies can introduce new products at will. If a company conducts a health study of a new chemical, it must supply a copy of the study to the EPA at the time it announces its plans for marketing the new chemical—but the law does not require any health studies, so few are done. About 1,000 new chemicals come into commercial use each year, and no one has to demonstrate safety prior to marketing a new chemical. The public is then exposed to the new chemical and, if the public can prove that it is being harmed, then a regulatory control process may be initiated. (In the case of pharmaceuticals, the burden of proof is reversed; the manufacturer of a new drug must demonstrate its safety and efficacy to a reasonable degree prior to marketing.) I believe the evidence that some common chemicals can interfere with our hormones will generate a national debate over the ‘burden of proof ‘ and where it should lie.”